What does it mean to be a successful online media company?

Media site operators have more access to analytical data than ever before, but they rarely share that information beyond ad agencies and sponsors— and the public hardly ever sees these companies with granular detail.

Clearly consumers have an appetite for content, though they may not always have any expectation of paying for it: the Pew Research Center’s recent report on local news suggests that Pittsburghers — like most Americans — rarely pay for news and they value daily updates on things like the weather, crime and traffic.

We know that Pittsburghers don’t stop there. They turn to a variety of local news outlets for all kinds of other information about politics and government, businesses, schools, arts, culture and more. Yet the media sites doing that work do not always turn up at the top of the web rankings. In fact, the web estimation sites such as Amazon’s Alexa and SimilarWeb often rank them relatively low — if at all. (Note: Publishers note that these sites’ numbers are not always accurate, but the rankings give them a general indication of how they’re faring against other media.)

So I asked several local media entrepreneurs and executives how they measure success. They said they look at web analytics, of course, but they also rely on metrics such as membership contributions, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants and more.

The most obvious indicator remains the bottom line: Can they stay open to keep telling original stories?

“Website rankings don’t always reflect the quality of reporting or audience,” Mila Sanina, executive director of PublicSource, wrote to me in an email. “The traffic game can be destructive to quality journalism, and that’s partially why a nonprofit model emerged as a vehicle to sustain meaningful local reporting.”

Alexa ranks PublicSource at 149,335 among U.S. websites, while SimilarWeb places it at 251,426.

Rather than following those numbers, Sanina said PublicSource measures success by “the direct impact and change our stories drive in the region, the depth and diversity of voices we feature and the number of people who support our organization by making donations.”

PublicSource started in 2011, and it became a stand-alone nonprofit in 2015. Much of its funding comes through foundation support, while its number of annual members has grown to 525 last year from 20 in 2016. (For the record, I served on PublicSource’s board until last year).

“We realize that we could drive more traffic to PublicSource.org if we covered the Steelers or the events that are coming up this weekend,” Sanina said. “However, that’s not what people come to us for and isn’t our mission.”

Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corporation, which includes WYEP and Pittsburgh’s NPR station, WESA, relies on a mix of foundation and government grants, and member support, CEO Terry O’Reilly said. WESA ranks 72,133 on Alexa and 78,506 on SimilarWeb.

O’Reilly shared some of his metrics for the stations: Gross revenues this year are $7.3 million, or an increase of more than 33 percent since 2016. Membership is up 23 percent over that time, with more than half the members providing sustaining support through an automatic monthly donation. Membership makes up 44 percent of revenue this year, while government support has shrunk to 4.5 percent of the budget from 8.2 percent three years ago.

Pittsburgh City Paper, which produces a free weekly newspaper, has started building up its web traffic by including more breaking and up-to-date daily information, editor-in-chief Lisa Cunningham said. The news outlet (current Alexa rank: 39,248 / SimilarWeb: 60,610) has also started a redesign of its website to show more stories in a user-friendly format, and to create a new events page with both editorial listings and sponsored posts by advertisers.

“Part of building a greater online audience also means updating the site daily,” Cunningham wrote in an email. “We’re no longer just a weekly newspaper, but we’ve built ourselves into a media company that produces digital-first stories throughout the week.”

NEXTpittsburgh, which publishes this column, seeks to balance building online traffic with producing stories that have impact even if they are not expected to generate a lot of clicks. The website (current Alexa rank: 23,155 / SimilarWeb: 72,823) gets some of its best traffic from development stories but also on issues that connect with readers: A feature on Lenore Blum talking about why she is leaving Carnegie Mellon University over sexism in the workplace drew more than 100,000 web hits.

“Traffic is very important to us, but so is impact,” founder Tracy Certo told me. NEXT averages 180,00 unique visitors monthly. “So when we decide what stories we do, it’s not always about how many clicks they will get but how relevant the stories are to readers and how it will impact them.”

For WhereBy.Us, The Incline’s new owners, the challenge will be how to maintain and expand its relationship with Pittsburghers. The Incline’s current Alexa rank is 94,766 and SimilarWeb is 159,218.

WhereBy.Us co-founder and CEO Christopher Sopher told me he doesn’t see those numbers as reflecting “the measurement of actual value for our users, whether we’re helping them with the things they’re trying to get done every day.”

Sopher’s company operates other local sites in Miami, Seattle, Portland and Orlando, and it claims 75,000 email subscribers among them. Sopher declined to talk about The Incline’s revenues or how many subscribers and members it has. Instead, he said the real test will be whether The Incline can be an indispensable part of daily life for its followers.

“We’re trying to create products that are useful to people every single day, that help you make sense of the city, that help you get involved,” Sopher said. “And through building that kind of trust and relationship, of helping people navigate the city on a day-to-day basis, we’re able to create longer-term, deeper relationships.”

They say the best things in life are free. At a time when fewer people expect to pay for news, online media companies have to hope long-term relationships somehow also help them keep their doors open.

Andrew Conte writes the On Media column with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com

Andrew Conte

Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments.